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Esper says US military will withhold some coronavirus data to prevent adversaries from using it

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds a media briefing at the Pentagon on August 28, 2019, in Arlington, Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)
March 27, 2020

The U.S. military will withhold some data regarding the coronavirus within its ranks to prevent adversaries from adversarial usage.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in an interview with Reuters that he would like to share the data about the virus’ spread in the military, which rose 30 percent to 227 cases on Wednesday, but believes that mission-specific data ought to be withheld to prevent compromising security.

“What we want to do is give you aggregated numbers. But we’re not going to disaggregate numbers because it could reveal information about where we may be affected at a higher rate than maybe some other places,” Esper said.

Without disclosing which information specifically would be withheld, Esper said that the numbers reported will be more general so adversaries cannot figure out where the military might be specifically affected. Previous reports from military officials specified where individuals were first detected with the coronavirus.

A recent example of specific details that could possibly be withheld in the future includes the case of a San Diego-based amphibious transport dock Somerset, which had its entire crew under quarantine beginning Tuesday after a sailor tested positive for the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

“I’m not going to get into a habit where we start providing numbers across all the commands and we come to a point six, seven weeks from now where we have some concerns in some locations and reveal information that could put people at risk,” he added.

In an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus through the ranks, Esper issued a stop movement order to the U.S. military, halting travel and movement abroad for up to 60 days.

Esper said that operational security in places like East Africa, where the United States is fighting al-Shabaab, and Syria or Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are fighting ISIS, is particularly important. He added that he doesn’t expect those missions to be disrupted by the coronavirus.

“We have more than enough capability,” he said. “The rate of infection and its impact is not hitting us at the levels that we have any concerns about right now.”

According to Johns Hopkins’ latest tracking data on Friday, there are more than 586,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 26,000 deaths globally, while more than 130,000 people have recovered from the virus. In the United States, there are more than 97,000 confirmed cases, more than 1,400 deaths, and 862 recoveries from the coronavirus. Those figures are suspected to be much greater due to the lack of available test kits.

In the U.S. military, the majority of servicemembers infected with the virus are in the United States. About 85 percent of the Air Force servicemembers infected are in the United States, according to Reuters. About 90 percent of the cases in the Navy were also in the United States. Statistics for the Army are unavailable.

Esper acknowledged that overseas commanders have more control over the movement of their troops and their families.

“You have far, far, far greater control of your servicemembers when you’re deployed abroad, even when you’re stationed abroad, than you do back in the United States,” Esper said.